In the recent turmoil of posts regarding gender and sexism in WoW, I made the pleasant discovery of the ‘mental shaman. She has a really thought provoking post on the goblin starting area in the beta, and in particular, a quest that exists there in which you kill your cheating ex and their new flame. While Pewter looks at the quest from a social aspect, examining the question of heteronormativity (woot, big words used correctly!) and its implications both for the players and developers of WoW, I’d like to look at the same quest line in a little different light. At least, that’s where this whole idea started. It’s since wandered off into the realms of what characters are in different parts of the RPG genre, and what that means for immersion and roleplay.
Beware, this is going to be LONG.
Two Kinds of Story
In WoW, there two different levels on which stories exist. There are developer stories, which are explicitly put forward in the game, and are available for anyone to interact with. These can be large or small, something as big and game changing as the rise and fall of Arthas, or something as tiny as Mankrik’s wife or the illness of Relara Whitemoon in Ashenvale. Then there are player stories, which we make with our characters whether we RP or not.
Rhii’s story, at its most basic, is something like this: she is a blood elf, she calls Silvermoon City her hometown, she journeyed through many regions, but spent lots of time particularly in Ashenvale and Stranglethorn Vale, and she did many things to prove her worthiness, including service at the Wrathgate. Now she is fighting in Icecrown Citadel as part of the Ashen Verdict forces (albeit very sporadically, but that’s not my point). There is no place in game that you’ll find reference to the mage, Rhii, or her various acts of good or evil in the world. It’s a player story only, it exists outside of the physical medium of the game. If I was to RP with Rhii, she’d have a larger story. Before the fall of Silvermoon, when the blood elves still were high elves and were affiliated with the Alliance, Rhii’s father worked with the Kirin Tor in Dalaran. She was born there, and thought of Dalaran as her home until she reached adulthood. She is very isolated now. She finds it difficult to trust her Horde comrades, because all her childhood friends were humans, but she also feels deeply betrayed by humans and so can’t find anyone she’s entirely comfortable with – even other blood elves. This story can’t even be found in the record of Rhii’s quests completed… but it’s concrete in my mind, the essence of who that character is.
Two (or maybe three) Kinds of Characters
There are also essentially two sets of characters: player characters and canon characters. NPCs who aren’t really defined in the game might provide a flexible third class, where they exist in canon, but any story they have is non-canon and invested by players. For an example of this, I remember reading someone’s description of their own character, where they mentioned they had a personal rivalry with Bimble Longberry the Ironforge fruit vendor. This isn’t a canon relationship, by any means, since nowhere in game will you find reference to Bimble Longberry competing for her job with a player character (I wish I could recall whose character it was), but yet the relationship exists on a player level, for that character and others who associate with her. And even, to a certain extent, to me, even though I play Horde on a different server, I think of Bimble Longberry as a job stealer.
Lore characters do their thing. They will always do their thing the same way. They have a predefined role in the story, and a predetermined birth, life, and death.
Player characters do not. They don’t have a preinvested personality. They don’t have a predetermined number, or storyline. Player characters proliferate. Some drop out of the story at level 10 (a staggering number, if numbers are to be believed). Others go on to become mighty heroes. Some battle the other faction, some battle the Lich King, some become industrialists – miners and crafters. Some just inhabit the world.
Two Kinds of Canon
There are several ways that RPGs handle the player character. Single player games generally place the character in a definite spot in the canon. For example, there are games (many JRPGs use this model) where your character is totally predefined for you. You might get to name them (Final Fantasy X, Persona 3), but beyond that, the character’s appearance, personality, and destiny are largely outside your control. There are others that give you large amounts of control over your character (Bioware games, Elder Scrolls Games), but your character has a defined position in the canon of the game world. My current Shepard might be very different from Tamarind’s Shepard (beware minor dragon age spoilers) or Tom Hatfield’s Shepard, but she is still THE Shepard in my game world. When I’m playing MY Shepard, Tamarind’s Shepard doesn’t exist in that world. There is only one Shepard. In fact, there is a defined canon Shepard, of which ours are just derivatives. So in a way, my Shepard is less real than THE John Shepard, who is the concrete embodiment of Shepardness. Or alternately THE Darth Revan or THE Jedi Exile or THE Grey Warden (I know I’m picking on Bioware extensively, but their games are the best expression of this concept, and the most well known). Even in games that lack that defined canon persona, your character is still the only one of their kind. In Oblivion, for example, you are the only one who can close the gates of Oblivion. Even if you choose to play like Nondrick P. Cairk’tir, you’re still THE ONE who can save the world. Nobody else can.
MMOs aren’t like that, they can’t be like that. Every player character starts out on equal footing. Some may choose to fart around Dalaran (Rivendell, Jita, what have you) all day while others pursue the Argent Tournament dailies (skirmishes, ratting, insert activity of choice here), but every character is equally real. There’s no sense that you and I are playing just different incarnations of the same character. Rhii is not Gnomeageddon is not Larisa is not Vidyala is not Aurdon is not Tamarind is not Rades. Player characters all exist together, at the same time, in the same way. At least within a server environment. Rhii doesn’t literally exist in the same game as, say Larisa, because I’m on a US server and she’s on an EU server. But we inhabit the same game world. The existence of Larisa doesn’t invalidate the existence of Rhii, like having two Shepards in the same copy of Mass Effect would do.
The Individual Goblin Problem
Previously, in WoW, Blizzard has been fairly careful to preserve that individuality of character creation. You’re not somebody particular when you come into the WoW universe. You’re just any old person. Someone in a crowd. Maybe the NPC that greets you knows you and is glad to see you, but you’re not the first they’ve seen, nor will you be the last. You don’t necessarily have the same exact characteristics as the last person who came through here. You’re not THE ONE. And the current starting areas emphasize this. Any undead could snap out of Scourge control and awaken at Deathknell, any blood elf could snap out of their mana jonesing and start seeking other ways to master themself, any draenei might have survived the exodar crash and come out of a coma at a particular time, any dwarf might be recruited and report for military training at Coldridge Valley. Your personal story of awakening is left blank, for you to envision if you will.
The death knight starting area was slightly less impersonal, there were a few mentions of a previous history, but what a “hero of the alliance/horde” might mean is pretty open to interpretation. Even during the infamous quest in which your loyalty to Arthas is finally strained to breaking, most of the friends that new-rolled death knights were ordered to execute are ones that should be pretty common among the race in question. Every undead would likely have had people they considered comrades in arms, for example.
If you’re a night elf, the story pretty much tells you your mother was a priestess at that point, but there are many many night elven priestesses, so that’s not saying you’re the exact same person as every other night elf dk (although it is vaguely problematic that every single night elf DK is the child of a priestess, some statistical abnormality that is!).
But the goblin starting area is different, it seems. I’m not in the beta, so I’ve only read about the goblin quests, and that sparingly because I don’t want to spoil it for myself, but this idea caught my attention strongly enough that I’ve poked into the quests as thoroughly as someone not in beta can. What happens is this, every new goblin character starts the game with a significant other of the opposite gender (although I’ll leave the analysis on that point to Pewter, who does it very well). If you’re a male goblin, you’ll be dating Candy, if you’re a lady goblin, it’s Chip. Over the course of the disasters in goblin starting land, your companion deserts you, and later on you find out that they’re working for a rival trade prince and dating someone else. Incensed, you go, kill the new flame and then take gory revenge on your ex by tearing out their still beating heart.
Yeah it’s gross. But it’s also a fairly detailed, developer mandated, in game description of your character’s personal life. Something we’ve never had in game before. And it’s not just your character… it’s all goblins’ personal lives. It’s like there’s only one goblin… in the world. The one who had a previous relationship with Chip/Candy, and was betrayed by them. In a world where your character is supposed to be a particular person amongst other particular persons who exist at the same time, in the same way, all goblins are clones of each other, inheritors of a pre-existing canon backstory. Almost like there’s a prototypical goblin (we’ll call him Shepard, for funsies) and all other goblins are somehow a derivative from the ideal standard of goblinness.
And it’s my understanding that you can’t even escape that predetermined background by skipping the quest. It seems to be a required part of the goblin starter storyline. Sad day for roleplayers everywhere. I’m not a WoW roleplayer, myself, but I am a roleplayer in other environments, and I haven’t been able to help myself from adding some elements of RP into my own playstyle. And I think from the reactions to different NPCs, torture quests, and plotlines I’m not alone in having an idea, independent of anything much that Blizzard defined, of who my characters are and what they value. And I doubt they want a big, not so delicate, finger in their pie from Blizzard dictating what they would and would not do.
And that’s to say nothing of the community of active roleplayers, who I’m sure will think hard about what to make of that story before creating a goblin. I think I might even want to reconsider making a goblin, and I only roleplay in my head. But if I want my character involved in a romantic relationship (or even just to be someone’s arm candy), I want that to be at my discretion… even concerning the (thoughtless? reckless? bloodthirsty?) indiscretions of her youth.
I told my boyfriend I’d been thinking along these lines, and he thought I was declaring the end of the world or the death of roleplay or something like it. I don’t mean to give that impression at all. That would be an overreaction. But I do think that changing from allowing a more or less totally open backstory (gradually transitioning through DKs who had some specified elements) to your character having more of a delineated personal history is a noteworthy shift in the way player characters are viewed by Blizzard. It does have (maybe not major but some) implications on the way you play the game, and the way you view your character. And since attachment to the characters is one of the factors that Blizzard banks on to keep you playing, they probably should make sure they tread lightly in areas that affect your perception of and attachment to your character.
Either way, it’s an interesting development, and one I’m not 100% on board with. What do you guys think? Will it matter to you that your goblin already has a history, or do you not care if you can build them from the ground up? Or would you prefer having a character that had a more defined personality in exchange for a more directed storyline, similar to what single player games offer? Or have I gone totally off the deep end with this one?